Cardinals’ series win over Padres underscores their emphasis on quality starts

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SAN DIEGO — The St. Louis Cardinals have clearly explained why they structured this year’s rotation in the fashion they did. They identified durability as a desired trait. Quality starts are coveted.

That is what fueled the Cardinals in their three-game series against the San Diego Padres. In the first two games, Kyle Gibson and Miles Mikolas notched back-to-back quality starts, a feat accomplished only nine times by last year’s team. In his Cardinal debut, Gibson spun seven innings in a 6-2 win, allowing two runs, four hits and two walks with four strikeouts.

Mikolas followed with his own two-run effort, scattering seven hits over six innings with a walk and four strikeouts in a 5-2 victory. The Cardinals were unable to complete the sweep — falling to 3-2 on Wednesday — but Zack Thompson was able to grind out five innings of two-run ball, despite lacking command.

All three outings underscored the importance of equipping a rotation that can rack up innings.

“One thing I think our rotation is going to be good at is keeping the bullpen fresh,” Mikolas said. “Being able to eat up innings, especially when we need to, our bullpen will come out and lock that game down.”

St. Louis posted just 48 quality starts last year, sitting in the bottom third of the league. But when they did record one, they usually fared well. St. Louis went 35-13 last year when their starter recorded at least six innings and allowed three runs or fewer.

That’s the model they hope to stick to in 2024, just more frequently. Early in free agency, the Cardinals targeted Gibson and Lance Lynn, pitchers known for their ability to make starts and eat innings. Those two, combined with Mikolas who was one of just four pitchers to record at least 200 innings last year, will be relied on heavily with Steven Matz being built up conservatively and Sonny Gray still on the mend.

Matz, who was brought along slowly this spring due to his injury history last season, was on a pitch count of 80 in his first start. He should be a full go for his next start, which will come Saturday against the Miami Marlins, but manager Oli Marmol won’t push Matz this early.

Gray was originally slated to make his first of three planned rehab assignments with Triple-A Memphis on Wednesday, but the organization opted to have him pitch in a simulation game with Double-A Springfield due to inclement weather. Memphis’ game was ultimately rained out, and keeping Gray on a schedule is vital to his rehab plan. He was slated for 50 pitches and will aim to push that total to around 70 in his next outing, tentatively planned for Tuesday. Based on scheduling and if his recovery goes according to plan, Gray’s Cardinals debut could come as early as April 15 against the Oakland Athletics, the team that drafted him.

Until then, the Cardinals will continue looking to Thompson, whose velocity has been down significantly in both of his starts this year. Last year, Thompson sat mid-90s with his fastball, but this year his four-seamer hasn’t topped 94 mph. Thompson described it as a timing issue and has been working extensively with pitching coach Dusty Blake to figure out the mechanics causing the velocity drop.

Already though, the Cardinals see more poise out of Thompson. Things spiraled quickly for him in the bottom of the first Wednesday. After Xander Bogaerts led off the frame with a single, Thompson walked three batters and forced in a run. He ultimately struck out Eguy Rosario with the bases loaded to end the threat.

“That game could’ve gotten ugly right there,” Marmol said to reporters after the game. “Obviously he would’ve wished to have his command to start the game but (he) was able to settle in and battle through it.”

There isn’t much to draw from definitively after one week of a 162-game season, but one thing the Cardinals did show over their first seven games was how their starting pitching staff will influence their success. Not one starter recorded a quality start during the team’s four-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cardinals went 1-3, with their lone win coming in extra innings. But a much sturdier performance from the rotation in San Diego resulted in a series win. That’s the model the Cardinals will aim to follow this year.

(Photo of Miles Mikolas: Ray Acevedo / USA Today)

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